We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
From the erotic conspirators of Dangerous Liaisons to the con artists of The Grifters to the record-store snobs of High Fidelity, Stephen Frears never met a subculture he didn’t like. Before he began making movies for Hollywood, however, the British director established his reputation with such films as My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, set in a newly multiculti London. His latest, Dirty Pretty Things, returns to that city to find it full of African, Turkish, and Chinese immigrants working service jobs so low-level that they’re virtually subterranean.
“When I read the script, it made sense of what I’ve been seeing in London for the last 10 years,” says the 62-year-old filmmaker, who’s spent the night in a Georgetown hotel after a Bethesda screening of his new movie. Barefoot and rumpled, he looks as if he slept in the T-shirt and chinos he’s wearing. “I realized that this was the first sort of modern account of London, not Britain, that anyone had written. It suddenly all made sense.”
Frears didn’t have any trouble selling the script, written by Who Wants to Be a Millionaire co-creator Steve Knight, to potential collaborators. “People said what I said: ‘Oh, I see.’ People didn’t know that that world existed. Nobody had introduced it to them; nobody had explained anything. Suddenly, you saw clearly that there was this sort of underclass of immigrant labor, both legal and illegal.”
This world is something different, the director argues, from the Anglo-Pakistani demimonde he explored in My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, both of which were scripted by Hanif Kureishi. “My Beautiful Laundrette is really about empire. It’s about, ironically, the legacy of empire.”
Such Dirty Pretty Things characters as a Nigerian doctor-turned-cabdriver (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) and a Turkish refugee working illegally as a hotel maid (Audrey Tautou) “have nothing to do with the empire,” says Frears. “We’re not to blame for these people.” He chuckles. “They’re Russians and Turks and Portuguese and Albanians. We never went there, really. So it’s quite different. This is all to do with this huge migration that’s taking place.”
Still, Frears allows, his U.K. films do usually involve people who live outside the mainstream. Making a movie about traditional Britons “wouldn’t interest me. It’s too familiar to me, or too familiar to audiences. I prefer to do things that are new to me. The new is what catches my imagination.”
As for a film about the English upper classes, he says, “I wouldn’t know where the vitality lay. When I made a film about the upper class, it was Dangerous Liaisons, which did have this sort of terrible vitality.”
Frears, who doesn’t write screenplays, has worked with such well-respected writers as Kureishi, Christopher Hampton, and Roddy Doyle. These days, however, he prefers lesser-known scripters. “I think it’s a change on my part,” he says. “Realizing that these rather interesting ideas come to you, and they’re not sent to you by the normal sort of writer I’ve been used to working with. They’re not literary in a way that someone like Christopher is. The chap who wrote this film, his qualities are curiosity and freshness and observation, rather than the understanding of the structure of plot. I suppose I feel that we can provide that.”
The original script, Frears says, “was 50 percent good, and then it just dropped off a cliff. We went to work, and it took about a year.” Knight has the script credit, and Frears won’t identify the rewrite wizard other than as “somebody who can do the dirty work for me. Someone I trust, who understands the structure of scripts.”
Although it required assembling an almost entirely non-British ensemble, Frears says casting the film was not that difficult. “People know who the talented ones are. Someone will say, ‘This person’s a really good actor.’ Whether they make sense with what you’re trying to find is, of course, a much more mysterious process. It has to be worked out between you and the actor. So you just sort of follow your nose, really. It’s very, very intimate.”
The director ended up working with three performers who had never played an English-language role before, including Tautou and Spaniard Sergi Lopez, who was the ominous title character in With a Friend Like Harry and had a small (and equally menacing) role in Jet Lag. “Audrey could speak English like a schoolgirl,” Frears says. “The Spanish guy could scarcely speak English. And the guy who plays the doorman, he was convinced he could speak English, but he was the hardest of them all to understand.”
He laughs at his own presumption. “I look back and I cannot believe, (a) that we were allowed to do it, and (b) that it didn’t cross my mind what an idiotic idea it was.”
Frears usually rehearses his cast enough “to get everyone into being in the same film. John Gielgud said, ‘If you’re lucky, you know what film you’re in.’ But on this film, I canceled the read-through because I thought the language problems would depress people. By then, I’d realized there were language problems.”
He credits a “brilliant voice coach,” Penny Dyer, for making the accents both believable and understandable. “I think the actors are all wonderful. But afterwards I thought, Blimey, I must have been insane.”
In the film, Tautou’s character desperately wants to escape London and move to New York. Although Frears has resisted leaving his homeland for the United States, he finds her desire perfectly understandable. “That’s true of most people in the world,” he says. “America is tremendously magnetic. You watch television, and there’s this wonderful life. People in England don’t quite know how other people live. There’d be a revolution if they did. When you go to France or when you come to America and realize how other people live, you realize how undernourished life in England is.”
One of the things that’s better fed in the United States is the movie industry. “People here know about films and like films, and it’s part of their lives,” Frears says. “In England, it’s like a sort of pirate raidnot really approved of. In America, it’s part of the culture. You feel much more confident making films here. And also, you’re making films as part of an industry that supports films and the whole thing makes economic sense. In Britain, it doesn’t makes economic sense. I mean, some people have made it make economic sense, but in general it doesn’t.”
Britain is too small, Frears explains, to support a major cinematic community. “And, anyway, British audiences prefer to see American films,” he notes with a laugh. “It is quite odd, making films in England. So you live on your wits.”
Yet his gripes about working in British film, the director volunteers, don’t really apply to his own career. “I’ve had a very, very lucky life, so it’s hard to draw lessons from me. I’ve been given enormous freedom, in both the U.S. and England.”
When Frears started working as an apprentice, in the late ’60s, swinging London and Beatles-blessed youth culture had given British film a major boost. Of today’s U.K. cinema, he says, “Oh, it bears no resemblance. No resemblance at all. The world is just sort of older. The world has got less interested in British films, more absorbed by American films. Or more dominated by American films. At that time, American films weren’t very good. The American industry in the ’60s was rather hidebound, while the Europeans where making these very quick, mobile, modern films. Well, now Americans make modern films.”
Like many British film directors, Frears sometimes works in television. He’s just finished a TV movie about embattled Prime Minister Tony Blair, tracing the politician’s career from when he entered Parliament in 1983 to becoming leader of the Labour Party in 1994. “It’s a very, very interesting script,” he says. “The events that are unfolding at the moment make it even more riveting. They wanted me to make it for the cinema, but I said, ‘There’s no reason why anyone outside Britain should be interested in this.’
“As long as I’m offered good material, I don’t terribly mind where it comes from,” he adds. “And television in England has money in a way that the cinema doesn’t. It’s more secure than films in Britain.”
At this point, Frears is interrupted by an off-the-record mobile-phone conversation with a representative of Miramax, Dirty Pretty Things’ American distributor. The break gives the director’s visitors a chance to notice a poster for the film that pictures not Ejiofor, the little-known lead actor, but Tautou, a proven moneymaker for Miramax. When he gets off the phone, Frears is asked if he had expected Tautou to appear alone on the movie’s promotional materials.
“No,” he says, chortling one last time. “But I’m not entirely naive.” Mark Jenkins